Government & Politics

591 Kansas inmates have Hepatitis C. It would cost about $9 million to treat them all

Nearly 600 inmates in Kansas prisons have Hepatitis C, an infection that damages the liver. Treating them all will take roughly $9 million.

But the prison system doesn’t have enough money to treat everyone right away. Other states have been sued for not treating inmates with Hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C is an inflammation of the liver commonly caused by a virus. Some people don’t show symptoms and those who do may have nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Those with a chronic infection may eventually develop chronic liver disease, which can include scarring of the liver or even liver cancer.

Hepatitis C is usually spread when the blood of an infected person enters the body of an uninfected person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is often spread through sharing needles.

The Kansas Department of Corrections began testing inmates in October and has so far found 591 inmates with Hepatitis C, or a little less than 1 in 10 inmates. The agency hopes to finish testing current prisoners in early March.

The hundreds of inmates with the infection is yet another challenge for the Kansas’s prison system. The agency is understaffed and spending millions a year on overtime pay. Last week, the state declared an emergency at the El Dorado Correctional Facility, making mandatory 12-hour shifts likely at the prison.

Of the 591 inmates, just 35 are undergoing treatment right now. Twenty-five have finished treatment. The Department of Corrections estimates that by the end of June, 100 inmates will have finished treatment.

Treatments for Hepatitis C are expensive but often effective. A 12-week treatment for a Kansas inmate costs roughly $15,000.

The state contracts with Corizon to provide health care to inmates. The contract provides $1.5 million annually for treatment, well below the $9 million estimated cost to treat all of the infected inmates.

That means the prison system for now will target treatment at high-priority patients, for whom the disease is the most advanced. Officials said about 43 inmates are considered high-priority. Interim Secretary Roger Werholtz indicated all high-priority inmates should receive treatments before they are released.

“We believe that we will actually be able to get caught up before anybody is released – we don’t want them carrying the disease out of the facility. So when you’ve got a captive audience, that’s a great time to try and do that, just because it’s a public health issue,” Werholtz said.

Even with an infection rate of 9.6 percent, Kansas’s prison system has a lower Hepatitis C infection rate than the likely national average. Previous studies have put infection rates for inmates between 12 percent and 41 percent, according to the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

The Kansas testing comes after litigation against another Kansas agency over its handling of Hepatitis C.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Kansas Department of Health and Environment last year, alleging the state’s Medicaid program made it difficult to obtain often-expensive treatments for Hepatitis C. The state this fall settled with the ACLU and agreed to cover the treatments.

Kansas hasn’t been sued over inmates with Hepatitis C, but several other states have. Missouri, Colorado, Illinois, California and Florida have all faced lawsuits, among others. The lawsuits have alleged poor or non-existent treatment for inmates with Hepatitis C.

The ACLU of Kansas on Wednesday would not comment for this story, citing developing litigation.

Werholtz briefed lawmakers Wednesday on the Hepatitis C issue, and some lawmakers expressed concerns afterward with the lack of funding.

“It seems to me the sooner we get on this and get it corrected, the less going forward it’s going to cost,” Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, said. “I think going forward, it would save us a lot of money.”

Billinger also questioned how many additional people are being exposed to Hepatitis C because inmates are going untreated.

Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, said new inmates come into the prison all the time, adding that “I’m not sure they’re doing enough to cut down the total number.”

KDOC officials said that all new inmates are now being tested unless they opt out.

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.